I’ve owned north of 200 cameras in the 40 years I’ve collected them, from crappy Instamatics to professional-grade gear. But I return to just four cameras over and over. As I’ve grown to love photography, these are the cameras I want to shoot, and shoot, and shoot.
Pentax ME. I love this camera beyond all reason. It’s small and light, it takes the whole range of K-mount manual focus lenses, and it produces great results time after time. It’s an aperture-priority camera that needs a battery to function fully, but I don’t mind because I love aperture-priority shooting. Bodies can be picked up for a song — the one pictured cost just $16. Pentax lenses are wonderful, plentiful, and relatively inexpensive. So it would not be a crisis if my ME were damaged or stolen.
This is one of my favorite photos from my ME. I shot it with a 50mm f/2 SMC Pentax lens on Kodak Tri-X film, on Grandview Avenue in Columbus, Ohio.
Nikon F2. This is arguably the finest all-manual, all-mechanical 35mm SLR ever made. My photo buddy John Smith has sent me two F2s — one an F2A with the DP-11 Photomic meter-prism-viewfinder head, and this one, an F2AS with the DP-12 Photomic head. Before John sent the F2AS to me, he sent it off to Sover Wong, the finest F2 repairman in the world, for a complete overhaul. This camera is pretty much set to work flawlessly for the rest of my life. I’ve taken more photos with this F2AS than with any other camera I’ve ever owned.
I shot this autumn scene with the F2AS and my 135mm f/3.5 AI Nikkor lens on Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film. This is the parking lot at Washington Park North Cemetery, around the corner from my house. The color and sharpness are unassailable!
Nikon F3. John Smith also sent me the F2’s successor, the F3. It came with the DE-3 meter-prism-viewfinder head, with its “high eyepoint” feature that lets you see into the viewfinder with your eye up to an inch away. That’s useful when you wear glasses. It was the first F-series camera to offer autoexposure, in this case aperture priority. It’s a solid, reliable performer that’s a joy to shoot.
I shot this with my 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor lens on Arista Premium 400 film. This is the counter at Cup o’ Joe, a coffee shop in the Short North in Columbus, Ohio.
Yashica-D. The only medium-format camera to make my short list, this twin-lens-reflex Yashica operates with buttery smoothness and Teutonic precision. Everything about it feels wonderful! This all-mechanical camera makes me guess both focus and exposure. I prefer at least match-needle metering, yet I shoot with my Yashica-D happily anyway.
I usually shoot slide film in my Yashica-D. On this summer day, I blew through an entire roll of Kodak E100G shooting flowers in my front bed.
A whole bunch of other cameras deserve an honorable mention. I like shooting with them, too, but don’t get them out as often.
Canon Canonet QL17 G-III. This is my favorite 35mm rangefinder camera. It’s too bad that the light seals in mine are shot. I’ve got fresh seals to install — have had them for three years now. I’ll get around to installing them someday. (Meanwhile, I just seal the seams with electrical tape.) It also takes a dreaded, banned 625 mercury battery. I use an alkaline 625 cell.
Olympus XA. This light, tiny camera delivers outstanding results. It’s my second-favorite 35mm rangefinder because the controls are tiny and ever so slightly fiddly. But it’s a great choice when I want to have a camera along inconspicuously. It’s a little too thick to fit into my jeans pocket, but it slips right into pockets in my slacks and jackets.
Argus A-Four. This was an advanced-amateur camera when it was new in the 1950s, offering a middling 50mm f/3.5 Coated Cintar lens. I didn’t expect much from this plastic and aluminum camera the first time I shot it, but holy cow does it deliver sharp photographs. And even though it makes you guess focus and exposure, it’s small and light. It’s a great camera for a sunny day: set the shutter at the inverse of the film speed and shoot at f/16. That gives wide depth of field, which makes up for a lot of focusing sins.
Nikon N2000. I have several wonderful Nikkor lenses for my F2s and F3, but sometimes want to shoot them with a body I wouldn’t cry over if it were damaged or stolen. This is that body. Fortunately, everything about it works flawlessly, and all the controls fall right to hand.
Agfa Clack. This clever little medium-format camera is pretty much a point and shoot, but it delivers astonishingly crisp results. It’s designed to take the slow films that were common when it was new. Not surprisingly, I’ve had the best luck shooting ISO 50 Ilford Pan F Plus in it. Next time I shoot it, I’m trying Kodak Ektar, an ISO 100 film with wide exposure latitude.
Kodak No. 2 Brownie, Model D. I never expected to be so charmed by a box camera. This cardboard box delivers wonderful photos, sharp as a tack except in the corners. Kodak Ektar 100 makes this centenarian camera sing. It is simply delightful to use. I’ve enjoyed a few very pleasant afternoons with this camera in my hands.
Kodak Monitor. This fine folding camera has a great 101mm f/4.5 Anastigmat Special lens, which returns delightful photos. It takes 620 film, long out of production. Fortunately, 620 is 120 on a fatter spool. 120 can be respooled onto 620 spools. I’m lazy; I buy mine pre-respooled. My Monitor needs its shutter linkage adjusted, and putting off fixing that keeps me from shooting this camera more often.
Kodak Brownie Starmatic. I don’t shoot 127 film very often, which is a good thing because few options are available and they’re all expensive. But when I do shoot 127, I lean on this, probably the finest Brownie ever made. It features a crude but reasonably effective autoexposure system!
Polaroid Colorpack II. I’ve always been charmed by the idea of instant photography, but have usually been disappointed with the results. Lots of experimentation revealed to me that the Fuji pack films are probably the best instant films ever made, and that this particular pack film camera is the right balance between ease of use and image quality. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but bottom line: it’s my favorite instant camera.
It was hard narrowing down my camera herd to just this list! Several other cameras sit in the next tier: solid performers that I like but almost never shoot because the above cameras take up so much of my time.
Here are all of the old film cameras I’ve reviewed over the years.